Christopher Nolan on ‘Dunkirk’: There Was No Green Screen

Christopher Nolan Dunkirk
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Christopher Nolan’s drive for authenticity with “Dunkirk” led him to bring the cast and crew of his World War II epic to the very beaches in France where Allied forces snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Even though the fighting ended decades and generations ago, there were still land mines and other live explosive devices lining the shoreline and the harbor.

“Every time we’d need to do one of our explosions, we’d do a controlled explosion first to see if it would set off anything,” Nolan said during a question and answer session at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday. “When you think about how long ago it is, it was very sobering in terms of the lingering impact of these kind of events.”

Nolan was on hand to celebrate IMAX’s 50th anniversary (the drama is shot using the company’s cameras). The event comes, as the director and Warner Bros., the studio behind “Dunkirk,” are in the midst of the film’s Oscar campaign. The picture was a box office smash, earning nearly $500 million globally. It also received some of the best notices of Nolan’s career, with buzz mounting that the director behind “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” could land his first best director Academy Award nomination.

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Nolan’s demand for authenticity didn’t just extend to his locations. He also outfitted real tankers, putting his actors in the kind of ships they would have been on as they tried to cross the English Channel with Nazi forces at their back.

“You could make a period perfect CG version [of a ship], but it wouldn’t feel as real,” Nolan said. “We felt that the matchup, the patina that computer graphics have is a very poor match for this kind of imagery from World War II.”

Nolan believes that his job as a director is to try to recreate as closely as possible what it must have been like to be in the thick of battle. It benefits the performances, he said. That meant that when actors like Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles are hovering under aerial bombardment, they’re not doing it in the comfort of a studio.

“When those boys are out there on those beaches and explosions are going off, they’re going off,” said Nolan. “There’s no green screen. They’re in it.”

“Dunkirk” is an experiential epic. It spends little time dissecting the political and military situation that led to evacuation. Instead the film plunges viewers into the heat of battle as they accompany scores of young soldiers in a desperate struggle for survival. Nolan felt that the best way to achieve his desired impact was to avoid getting bogged down in exposition.

“I wanted to just put people there on the beach, put them in the cockpit of a spitfire,” he said, adding, “I didn’t want to cut to generals in rooms moving things around on maps. … When you look at the great World War II movies from the past, that tends to be the thing that dates them.”

The film also plays with time in unique ways. One section unspools over the course of a week and follows English soldiers as they wait for transport. Another is set on a ship, over the course of a single day, as English volunteers from across the country sail out to help rescue troops. The last section follows a pilot (Tom Hardy) as he flies out to shoot down Nazi planes and give the English troops cover to evacuate. That final section is set over the course of an hour. Toronto Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey asked Nolan if he was worried that the intersecting time frames would be too confusing.

“Well, it’s like f— it,” Nolan said. “It’s my job as a writer-director to try to be the audience for the film.”

The distance nature of the film’s pacing is central to its appeal, he maintained.

“We all want to see interesting and exciting things in movies,” Nolan said. “We all want to see a story that’s a little bit different from what you saw last week in a movie theater. I’ve carved out a little freedom for myself to do that within the studio system. I feel a great responsibility to always be pushing boundaries.”

“Dunkirk” reunites Nolan with Hardy, who played Bane, the mask-wearing antagonist of Batman, in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Once again, Hardy’s face is obscured for much of the film as he engages in aerial standoffs.

“Nobody works with a mask like Tom Hardy,” said Nolan.

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  1. David Partida says:

    The movie was complete trash. End of story.

  2. Shyam Ganesh says:

    It was a different watch. Like a super expensive first person view film. If ones first person was a high end drone. Anyways, it released and became a hit in China. How is that now with no reference to anything Chinese? Was Nolan instructed to eliminate all proof of Sikh soldiers. Yes, sikh soldiers were there fighting their world wars. So many lost their lives for the stupid empire’s sake. History will always be testimonialnto that. And not one mention. I mean not even a bloody f**king turban on an extras head. After reading about this, thank god there was Hacksaw Ridge. Dunkirk is more like you done bad Nolan, ‘donebad’.

  3. Learntogeography says:

    It’s British, you philistine. Do they not teach geography in the US?

    I’ll start saying California when referring to the entire US. Sounds stupid doesn’t it.

  4. Bobby K. says:

    I am amazed by this Nolan hate in the comments.

    I can only conclude that the Oscar fights are getting very sneaky and very crass.

    The criticism is undeserved. There may well have been a couple slight continuity errors as people say, but overall it was a gripping STORY. There is something wrong with your head if you think it sucks.

  5. Alan says:

    Strange to talk about authenticity when referring to Nolan’s film. What about the Portainers / container cranes in the beach backdrop of the beach scenes, and the industrial complex behind the pier, and modern day Dunkirk as the Spitfire glided overhead, and the ridiculous notion the a Spitfire could glide for so long and even make a tirn all the while shooting down a Stuka, and so it goes on…. The BBC do a better job in their TV programs. Dunkirk is, as so many have pointed out, rather an average amateurish affair. Expected better from a big budget Nolan movie.

  6. fraudster says:

    Nolan is just above average with the writing intellect of a peanut. Nolan is a fraudster and conning his way through the industry similar to that other hack known as Quentin Tarantino. These two hacks have yet to make a great film and treat people in the industry as marks with their grifter skills of the con. Nolan is a dill and his movies resemble my homemade movies. Dunkirk is an offensive distortion of history with no representation of Indian forces in that conflict. Leaving out the curry eaters is blatant racism. Dunkirk is directed with the lame skills of a first year film student.

  7. Siggy says:

    Could you replace ” Nazi forces” with German forces in future articles please. Remember it was colonial Briton who declared war on Germany.

    • Rachel says:

      Ummm, this isn’t WW1. They were Nazis. They followed Hitler. End of story.

    • Bobby K. says:

      Spot the butthurt Nazi.
      The ”Briton” did declare war on Nazi forces – Because they had a treaty with France and Poland and Nazis just invaded Poland. Its like being in NATO, and Russians attack France and then blame Brits for “declaring war”

      “Colonial” Briton, FYI Germany had Colonies too. Everyone in Europe did, it was the done thing.

    • Siggy, your comment that colonial Britain declared war on Germany is a fine example of taking something totally out of context. Have you forgotten Poland? Do you know or care anything about the failure of appeasement which lead to the war? Even as an American, not British, I can see and value what the British (not Colonials) did for the protection of not just themselves, but Europe as a whole. Nolan’s film was great and will probably be viewed in future years just as “The Longest Day” is today. Not only as a film but a document helping people to understand an important part of our history.

  8. Sage on the Hudson says:

    “Another is set on a ship, over the course of a single day, as English volunteers from across the country sail out to help rescue troops.”

    The name “English” used less and less these days, giving way to “British,” as what we now commonly call the U.K. is made up of four distinct ethnic and cultural groups: Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English. When ethnicities are contained within a geographic space, it’s been the historical norm that one of them typically becomes dominant, with the other(s), subjugated to one degree or anther, just as typically objecting, to one degree or another.

    But in the case of the mission to rescue the men from the beaches of Dunkirk, one cannot and must not credit “the English.” It was the BRITISH, all four components of which were on those naval vessels and sloops and skiffs that made the perilous Channel crossing in the face of German determination that no British “Tommy” should leave that beach alive or uncaptured.

    And that’s what Nolan is saying in his film, criticized by some for its lack of personal stories: “Dunkirk” is the story of the values of a NATION, as well as the values of a nation determnied to enslave and destroy it, as exemplified by the catchall “British.”

  9. Spike says:

    NOlan: “You could make a period perfect CG version [of a ship], but it wouldn’t feel as real,” Nolan said. “We felt that the matchup, the patina that computer graphics have is a very poor match for this kind of imagery from World War II.”

    you’re lame Nolan. you can manipulate CG any way you want. and it’s not a smash hit. you’re only fifty million in the black, you fool.

    next time you need a vice admiral waiting on a pier with nothing to do for 10% of the running time of the film, let me know. i’ll get you some bloke cheaper than who you got for it.

    • Rachel says:

      CGI doesn’t look as good as the real thing. You can manipulate it all you want and it will still have that fake glossy finish. Even something great like War for the Planet of the Apes suffers from that at some points in the film.

  10. Spike says:

    nolan is a great director but has too big an ego to let a really professional screenwriter work with him. if he had, the film would not be riddled with script holes. even if a vice admiral really was on a pier at Dunkirk with one staff it doesn’t have verisimilitude and looks bloody ridiculous. and what ‘s wrong nolan, did you really run out of FX money that you couldn’t CGI in a few hundred small boats in the scenes where the boats were rescuing the soliders? your pathetic beach scene with maybe 20 small boats was laughable.

    pathetic. there was a script hole every ten minutes. go back to Screenwriting 101, nolan.

    too bad. no one around to rein in your ego. why? because you’re ‘christopher nolan’! Oh mi god. everyone has to bow down and kiss your a–. not me.

    • Rachel says:

      Where’s you script? Let me know when that gets made. I’ll make sure the skip it.

    • Chris says:

      @Spike, I have a feeling you are a marvel fanboy and cannot stand the fact most people still see The Dark Knight as the greatest comic book movie of all time haha. Oh yeah guess who had a hand in writing that? oh yeah Christopher Nolan. You call him a fool for Dunkirk being a smash hit but it was the editor who made that claim, you fool haha. 100 million budget, 50 million in marketing and 500 million world wide…so far. How is you’re math? that looks like more than 50 million in the black, you fool haha.

    • Losers are still losers, even on their meds says:

      Hey Spike, ya need to get back on your meds, posthaste!!

  11. John Th says:

    Weird to see Christopher Nolan cussing. Doesn’t feel right.

  12. lindsey says:

    Nolan’s a competent director (and an incompetent screenwriter) – no one but his fanboys care that he doesn’t use green screen. “Oh look at me! I’m a pretentious director who wears a scarf and doesn’t use computer VFX to give my films greater scale.”

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